There are a few turns of phrase, which my mum repeated to us so frequently as children, they have become ingrained in my psyche and I often find myself parroting them even now, hearing her voice in my own. ‘I wants don’t get’; ‘sometimes you have to think of others’; ‘when it’s gone it’s gone’; ‘what will be will be’; ‘we are so lucky’.
It was only while reading an article by Oliver Burkeman in this Saturday’s Guardian Magazine that I started to think about these ‘mum-isms’ and, in particular, about the frequency with which she has employed this final refrain. Whether it be in reference to our family, our friendships, or our home, while out on a long walk in the rain, or sitting on a balcony somewhere watching the sea, the words ‘we are so lucky’ are never far from her lips. She has always acknowledged that these things should not be taken for granted and sees our good fortune in even the banalities of the day-to-day, appreciating that such pleasures may be fleeting and should be valued as such. Her ‘Que Sera, Sera’ attitude is recognition that while we can do everything possible to stack the odds in our favour, luck has a role to play in tipping effort and hard work into success.
This is an approach to life that I have unconsciously adopted from her; I say unconsciously, since it wasn’t until reading Burkeman’s article that I really realised that this is a tendency we share and one which, according to Burkeman, is increasingly rare.
According to many economists and psychologists, Burkeman reports, that as a rule, we all generally fail to acknowledge how lucky we are. What is more, the more successful we become the less likely we are to recognise the fortuitous circumstances that may have brought us to our current situation. Instead of laying some credit at the feet of Lady Luck, we tend to think that we arrived at our various successes through ‘willpower and elbow grease’ alone, chronically underestimating the role that luck has to play; quoting EB White, Burkeman remarks that ‘luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men’.
And it is not just a lack of gratitude that results from this failure to recognise the role that the gods of chance have to play in our lives; it seems that the more we underestimate the role of luck the meaner we become, and that this ‘meanness’ could extend to our political decisions. If the rich and powerful believe that they have reached their positions of strength through hard work alone, ‘it is hardly surprising that many such people oppose taxation and government spending: why should others get a handout if they didn’t need one?’.
But it is not just the super-rich that can fail to appreciate how lucky they have been in reaching their current position, indeed ‘anyone living in a highly developed economy […] is already the beneficiary of stupendous luck […] and it’s easy to see why Buddhists speak of the incomparable luck of being born human at all. You might have been a battery hen, or a mayfly'(!)
So why do we generally fail to recognise how lucky we are in our day-to-day lives? Perhaps it is because it is not hard to recollect those ‘countless times when you put in the effort to succeed: slogging through university finals, preparing for job interviews, tolerating a soul-killing commute. By contrast, it’s genuinely difficult to perceive all of the ways in which you’re privileged – let alone all of the “negative preconditions” of your success, like not being in a war zone.’
So should we just resign ourselves to the fact that the tendency to overlook our good fortune is endemic and untreatable? Perhaps not, since it appears that reminding people of how lucky they are serves to make them kinder and more generous.
So the next time you are dealt a good hand or the dice fall in your favour remember that no matter how much ground-work you may have put in, for all of the variables to have aligned the chances are you were also that little bit lucky.